MofA Week 9

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Folk music and folkloricization in the Arab world


Note the diversity of "folk music". How does the coherence of this category compare to that of the turath qadim (old turath of the 19th century and before)? To the newer extensions of the turath in the 20th century (mediated by radio, film, phonograms, TV) (we'll discuss these next)?

Some features (neither necessary nor sufficient, but somewhere in between...i.e. don't expect all of these features to apply in any particular case) of what is ordinarily defined as "folk" as an etic term (in ethnomusicological discourse, or ordinary English-language discourse; but note that the latter also reserves this term for specific North American and European genres and traditions).

Folk music's possible attributes (neither necessary, nor sufficient, but often invoked...)

  • pre-capitalist, pre-mediated, pre-industrial
  • perceptions of marginality today...
  • ...far (in perception, in reality) from centers of power and elite culture (bottom of pyramid), i.e. often working class, rural, or both.
  • not bound by officially-sanctioned, powerful prescriptive models (e.g. court or conservatory standards for the way one must play one's instrument),
  • (therefore) diverse,
  • representative of local character (musical, language, dance style - all localized), firmly embedded in contexts, usually entertainment for lifecycle events (and especially weddings!) or to pass the time while working, or child-rearing i.e.
  • storytelling: centrality of poetry, and the poet-singer, or
  • dancing: centrality of dance rhythms, or
  • soothing: putting children to sleep, or
  • working: compatibility with the rhythm and social patterns of work (agricultural, trades...), which may also be referenced.
  • texts are often more broadly distributed than music, which is localized (occasionally the reverse!)
  • use of colloquial language (often oral)
  • less professionalism
  • less formal training
  • no formal/explicit theory or history
  • more orality, less writing or other mediation; oral transmission
  • conceived as "of the people" even if specific composers are also recognized (and often they are not)
  • pastoral or agrarian (connected to domestication of animals and plants) or lower-class-urban ethos
  • distinctive instruments (often localized, use of local materials)
  • shaped by live performance contexts (even when recorded or mediated)
  • shaped by participation (song, dance, work)
  • "functional" - often closely tied to activities of a particular context (work song, lullaby), situated within ordinary life - of the people
  • often tied to religiously-tinged themes and contexts, especially life cycle rituals
  • e.g. prevalence of madih in Muslim areas
  • rarely evoking "art music" aesthetic attitude of intensive, focused listening
  • preservation through folkloricization in elite, state-sponsored (nationalist), or commodified culture, resulting in contextual and aesthetic shifts
  • appeal to nostalgia or tourism
  • preservation of older (turath) aesthetics no longer present in urban musics
  • affect - in urban areas: connotes nostalgia for idealized past
  • may be used coloristically within "modern" works (western classical or popular or art), or as a basis or source of inspiration in "popular" music (defined by broader, mediated, commercial appeal).

Such folk music may interact with "art" traditions and "popular music" streams, and the boundaries (like all etic boundaries) can be fuzzy.

Folkloricization: the separation of music and context; musical recontextualization, typically passivization (often mediated, e.g. TV folk music programs, or worked into high-art works to be "consumed" by a largely passive audience); musical symbolization/ideologization/commodification (in relation to notions of nation); removal of traditional audience and insertion of new audience; musical communication caused to cross boundaries of culture and class. All these processes induce corresponding musical changes as well.

Post-folkloricization?: taking music out of context, then reinjecting it into communities, through workshops and local ensembles, so as to encourage participation. This is what El Mastaba and Makan are doing in using folk music to strengthen civil society of musical participation and collaboration; the same applies to the AMP project.

Note that with the exception of the Fidjeri music and mawwal, all the folk music examples presented here were recorded on the stage of the Institut du Monde Arabe, an Arab cultural center in Paris, primarily for a French audience. The mawwal examples were recorded in Cairo, and produced by Long Distance- Real World Works, a label based in Paris, with support from Festival D'Automne a Paris.

The three Institut du Monde Arabe albums can be found in their catalog. (La Simsimiyya de Port-Said: Ensemble Al-Tanburah; Aux source du Rai: Cheikha Remnitti; La geste hilalienne: Sayyed al-Dowwi). Have a look at the album covers and read the French text if you are able (you can search the pdf file for the artists' names to locate the albums).

Generally: Examine the notes and cover art to "folk music" albums from a critical perspective. What features are emphasized in order to sell the "folk music" to a largely Western market?

EMIC terms used in Arabic include:

  • sha`bi: "of the people", hence: "al-musiqa al-sha`biyya" - "people's music"
  • fulklur: "folklore" (transfer of concept from English)


In class. (15 minutes each, maximum.)


Some sample readings/viewings on various topics:


Abu-Lughod, L. (1985). Honor and the Sentiments of Loss in a Bedouin Society. American Ethnologist, 12(2), 245-261.

Racy, A. J. (1996). Heroes, Lovers, and Poet-Singers: The Bedouin Ethos in the Music of the Arab Near-East. Journal of American Folklore, 109(434), 404-424. [On the influence of Bedouin music]

[1] This is an example of the mihbaj (coffee grinder) and its musical qualities that are associated with hospitality, honor etc.

Egyptian folk

Cachia, P. (1977). The Egyptian Mawwal: Its Ancestry, Its Development, and Its Present Form. Journal of Arab Literature, 8, 77-103. [see below for more on mawwal]

The simsimiyya (a lyre connecting Red Sea countries):

Shiloah, A. (1972). The Simsimiyya: A Stringed Instrument of the Red Sea Area. Asian Music, 4(1), 15-26.

Shami folk

Adrienne: Bar-Yosef, Amatzia (1998). Traditional Rural Style under a Process of Change: The Singing Style of the "Hadday", Palestinian Folk Poet-Singers. Asian Music, 29(2), 57-82


Ataaba (complaint); see Racy article above.

Israeli Mediterranean Music: Straddling Disputed Territories. Amy Horowitz. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 112, No. 445, Theorizing the Hybrid (Summer,1999), pp. 450-463]

Pearl divers

Touma, The Music of the Arabs, pp. 88-95 (Fjiri songs of the Arabian Gulf).


Religious folk

Gnawa is syncretic fusion music, mixing West African elements with Islam and Sufism, in Morocco. (See below for more.)

Mevlevi music. Sultans of Spin: Syrian Sacred Music on the World Stage, AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 105(2):266-277.

[7] [8] [9]

Syrian restaurant performance

Mevlevi performance as "folk" music? (Think about politics of this claim - in Turkey, or in Syria, or on the "world stage"...)

Also: See my videos on Sufi folk music in Egypt. (


How do religious and folk musics overlap? What happens when religious music is folkloricized, distanced from traditional meaning and context, treated as an unstudied cultural artifact of the anonymous masses? It is hard to imagine this happening to mainstream ritual sounds-- Qur'anic recitation, for instance. But Sufi music is often treated as a "folk" category, especially when it represents a distinctive visible or cultural minority, as it the case with the "black" Gnawa of Morocco, with the approval of many mainstream Muslims (who treat such traditions as popular superstition). (Similar groups are the Moroccan Hamadsha and the Stambouli of Tunisia, as well as the Zar of Egypt and Sudan).

Baba L-Rouami, featuring sintir (bass), vocals, darbouka drum (the metal cymbals, qarqaba, are not used on this track).

This is Gnawa music, performed by a Gnawa religious organization of Morocco, packaged for the world music world as "Gnawa Night Spirit Masters". Traditionally, this music is used to induce trance and spirit propitiation. Sub-Saharan African influences abound, in the music (use of pentatonic scale, polyrhythm, call-response singing, prominent metal clapper), trance behavior, and belief in musical interactions with the spirit world (for instance spirits are associated with tunes or rhythms). But the primary instrument, called sintir or gimbri (resembling a bass guitar) is related to other plucked lutes of the region, and Sufis share many of the same ideas and forms of social organization.

The Gnawa, who most probably came to North Africa via the slave trade, claim descent from the Prophet's first muezzin (mu'adhdhin, the caller-to-prayer), Bilal, himself of black African (Ethiopian) descent. Originally many spoke Bambara, though most speak Arabic today. Over the last few decades, Gnawa music has developed a large local and world music audience, and various fusion variants with rock and jazz artists (e.g. bassist Bill Laswell, jazz pianist Randy Weston, and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of rock group Led Zeppelin). Literary figures such as Paul Bowles have also embraced this music enthusiastically.

The Gnawa practice a healing ritual (derdeba or lila) involving music, movement, and trance, for spirit propitiation and therapy. They are close to Sufi groups in some ways; some of the spirits are Muslim, and Gnawa generally consider themselves Muslim. Like Sufis, they form a brotherhood, and practice an ecstatic liturgy; even the word "lila" (night) is common among Sufis to denote a nighttime ceremony. In other ways they are closer to myriad music-possession-healing groups of sub-Saharan Africa. The Zar ritual of Sudan and the Red Sea area is very similar, musically and philosophically. However the Gnawa are also an ethnic designation, and tend to intermarry; this is rarely true of Sufi orders (turuq) generally.

Gnawa music is a good example of "music of the Arab world" which cannot be regarded as "Arab music" in the usual sense.

Gnawa Stories provides an informative multi-media presentation.

World Music Central has a brief overview and introduction to a fusion album, University of Gnawa

A typical folkloric group is Dar Gnawa.

Shaabi music of Egypt

Music of the "inner city" - gritty, earthy, real - mixing rural influences with urban.

See James Grippo's chapter in "Music and Media in the Arab World"

Folk or vernacular religious traditions of groups that don't necessarily or always identify primarily as "Arab"

(Jews, Kurds, Copts, Berbers, Armenians, Nubians, Maronites, Chaldeans, etc.)

Hoffman, Katherine E. (2002). Generational Change in Berber Women's Song of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Ethnomusicology 46(3), pp. 510-540

Roots of Rai: Cheikha Remitti

Listen, [10], watch, and read this interview. Bio and obit in the Guardian.

Fidjeri songs of the Arabian Gulf

Fidjeri songs of the Arabian Gulf (Touma, The Music of the Arabs, pp. 88-95).

Al-Taee, Nasser. "Enough, Enough, Oh Ocean": Music of the Pearl Divers in the Arabian Gulf. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 1 (June 2005), pp. 19-30 Article Stable URL:


This remarkable tradition developed among pearl divers of the Gulf. Songs are work songs (e.g. khrab sung by soloist --nahham -- and chorus while weighing anchor) and other songs sung at home, in the meeting place called dar, usually on Thursday evenings. Each dar would cultivate a particular kind of sea song (fann al-bahr), of which fidjeri is only one.

Texts describe hard life of pearl divers, but also contain religious texts - prayers to God, Muhammad, Ali. Musically divided between solo and chorus, in a series of sections named for the underlying rhythm. Instruments include tabl and mirwas (cylindrical double-headed drums), tar (tambourine), tasa (cymbal), jahla (watern urn). The vocal soloist is called nahham. Hand-clapping is also central, as in the sawt.

The start of the sea voyage is accompanied by the fann al-basseh (rope song), followed by the hudwa (as they push off). At the diving location many work songs are performed, including basseh (accompanies hoisting of the sail), suryah (setting the sail), makhmus (when mast is lashed), khrab (when anchor is weighed). Entertainment genres include bahri, adsani, haddadi, mkhulfi, and hassawi.

The Adsani section displays four phases of rhythmic structure, in which meter progressively lengthens from 4 beats, to 8 beats, to 32 beats, to 64 beats.

The Mkhulfi section features a 16 beat meter, with improvised melody from the nahham (see Touma's notation p. 95).

In 1332, the fourteenth-century Arab explorer Ibn Battuta (1303-1377) described pearling in Bahrain: From there [Khunjubal] we journeyed to the town of Qays, which is also called Siraf. The people of Siraf are Persians of noble stock, and amongst them there is a tribe of Arabs, who dive for pearls. The pearl fisheries are situated between Siraf and Bahrayn in a calm bay like a wide river. During the months of April and May a large number of boats come to this place with divers and merchants from Faris (Persia), Bahrayn and Qathif (Saudi). Before diving the diver puts on his face a sort of tortoiseshell mask and tortoiseshell clip on his nose, then he ties a rope round his waist and dives. They differ in their endurance under water, some of them being able to stay under for an hour or two hours or less. When he reaches the bottom of the sea he finds the shells there stuck in the sand between small stones, and pulls them out by hand or cuts them loose with a knife which he has for the purpose, and puts them in a leather bag slung round his neck. When his breath becomes restricted he pulls the rope, and the man holding the rope on the shore feels the movement and pulls him up into the boat. The bag is taken from him and the shells are opened. Inside them are found pieces of flesh which are cut out with a knife, and when they come into contact with the air solidify and turn into pearls. These are then collected, large and small together; the sultan takes his fifth and the remainder are bought by the merchants who are there in the boats. Most of them are the creditors of the dives, and they take the pearls in quittance of their debt or so much of it as their due. (Gibb 1953, 121-22)

Pearling declined with Japanese competition and discovery of oil in the 1930s, and there are far fewer dar than before, but the tradition is maintained in part via folkloric performances.

Epic poetry: The Sira Hilaliyya

Reynolds, D. F. (1994). Musical Dimensions of an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition. Asian Music, 26(1), 53-94. [on the Sira Hilaliyya - a long epic, reminiscent of the old Homer epics perhaps? see below for more on this]

Documentary on the Sira

Sayyid Dawwi, one of the most acclaimed performers of the Sira in Egypt today

The Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive

The Sira Hilaliyya (Reynolds, D. F. (1994). Musical Dimensions of an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition. Asian Music, 26(1), 53-94.)

Sira Hilaliyya text: Rizq's complaint as he awaits a son

Listen and also read the relevant portions of this interview with Professor Dwight Reynolds (the whole thing is fascinating, but start reading in earnest from the interviewer's question about the Bani Hilal; just search for the text "epic of the Bani Hilal" and start reading from there)

The sira has been folkloricized in a number of ways, in Egypt (the famous poet Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi published one version; the director Hasan al-Geretly adapted it for the stage), and in Europe (performances by Hasan's troupe al-Warsha; performances on the stage of the Institut du Monde Arabe).

The Egyptian mawwal

Egyptian mawwal of Wardani and Toffaha

Cachia, P. (1977). The egyptian mawwal: Its ancestry, its development and its present forms. Journal of Arabic Literature, 8, 77.

Listen and also read the notes online, providing a complete transcription of the mawwal performed. In fact, what is performed is a sequence of mawwal poems, each employing a different rhyme scheme. Strung together, they create a narrative form rarely heard today. The mawwal as purely musical genre, implying vocal improvisations on a poem (which need not itself be a mawwal), continues in secular urban music which represents the extension of the old turath, though most modern pop singers are not capable of performing it.

The Red Sea Simsimiyya

The Simsimiyya of the Red Sea region. (Shiloah, A. (1972). The Simsimiyya: A Stringed Instrument of the Red Sea Area. Asian Music, 4(1), 15-26.

The audio presents two excerpts from a Paris performance by the Tanbura group from Port Said, featuring the simsimiyya (lyre) and voice.

The first song, "Shuftu al-Amar `ala al-sadr al-gamil" (I saw the moon on the breast of the beautiful one), in praise of beauty, is typical of this genre (maqam rast). The second, "Wa al-salaat `al-nabi" indicates a common phenomenon: the performance of Islamic folk music in genres and contexts that don't appear overtly religious, as a kind of benediction. Such songs often open or close performances of folk music. This one calls for blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad (maqam bayyati)

YouTube video of the Tanbura group of Port Said

The group challenges traditional governmental folkloricization, and also creates their own forms on stage, and even in video clips. (Check out the videos on their website.)

Berber women's music

I've not located audio corresponding to the article, but listen to the music of Cherifa.

Nubian music